Retrospective of Park Soo Keun’s Work Features UMMA Loan

Retrospective of Park Soo Keun’s Work Features UMMA Loan

Park Soon Keun
People on the Street
oil on board
14 3/8 x 10 13/16 x 2 in. (36.51 x 27.31 x 5.08 cm)
UMMA, Gift of the Joseph T.A. and Elsie Choy Lee Family, 2013/2.525

Park Soo Keun (1914–1965; also known as Park Su-geun) was a South Korean painter most active from the 1950s. UMMA recently loaned his 1962 oil painting People on the Street to the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea, to be part of an expansive retrospective “Park Soo Keun: The Naked Tree Awaiting Spring.” 

The exhibition features nearly 200 oil paintings, watercolor paintings, sketches and illustrations by the modernist artist made over the course of his career–as well as over 100 pieces of archival materials, such as the art textbooks and magazines that Park used as references while teaching himself technique.

Park never received formal artistic training. However, the Korea Times notes that the exhibition “strives to shed the simplistic modifiers that have long defined Park and his works ― such as his ‘unfortunate’ life in poverty as a painter marginalized by the cliquish art world. . . [the exhibition] turns to contextualizing the artist's body of work within the perspectives of various social groups of his time ― his colleagues, art critics and collectors ― who have either directly interacted or shared similar aesthetic sensibilities with him, to reveal new ways to look at his pieces.”

People on the Street depicts five figures, all roughly the same size and wearing matching hats, squatting together in a circle. Like many of his works, the painting’s colors are limited to a muted palette of browns and grays–a technique that Park favored, along with scraping off paint layers, in order to give each work the appearance of having been painted on rock. According to the Korea JoongAng Daily, Park’s work was known for “its soothing Korean folk aesthetics, mostly illustrating the scenery of countryside streets and capturing the lives of ordinary people.”

UMMA received People on the Street in 2013 as a gift from the family of the late Professor Joseph T.A. Lee, who taught for a long time at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. Lee bought the painting while visiting Seoul, South Korea in 1962, because (according to Natsu Oyobe, UMMA’s Curator of Asian Art) he felt the painting encapsulated “the quintessential characteristics of Korea and its people.” 

The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which has four branches, opened in 1969. People on the Street will stay there at the Deoksu branch until the exhibition ends in March 2022. Learn more about the exhibition here.